Listening to Lise Davidsen is like watching a Roger Federer serve: there’s elegance, grace, apparently effortless fluidity. There’s also more power than everyone else. When you get the chance to hear last night’s Royal Opera’s Fidelio, just listen to the repeated “Noch heute”, Leonore’s outburst of joy that she will be allowed into Florestan’s  dungeon “this very day”. It’s brutally difficult to sing, with the high G and high A appearing from nowhere, but Davidsen smashes the notes through the middle, soaring above a fortissimo orchestra with radiant timbre and expression. Covent Garden has seen many great role debuts over the years, but I doubt there have been many with quite this level of self-assurance. 

Lise Davidsen (Leonore) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Lise Davidsen (Leonore)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

While Davidsen was unquestionably the star of the show, head and shoulders above the rest, there was plenty of other excellence in this cast. As befits the role of Marzelline, Amanda Forsythe’s soprano is lighter and more glittery: it’s a very attractive timbre and Forsythe’s commitment to the character was equal. Jonas Kaufmann was announced to be singing Florestan in spite of being “under the weather”; while clearly husbanding his strength, he delivered the burnished tone and smoothness of phrasing that we know and love. Excellent as Kaufmann’s legato was, there was better to come: if ever there was a case of luxury casting, it’s surely having a bass-baritone of the calibre of Egils Siliņš in the “ten-minutes-at-the-end” role of Don Fernando.

Jonas Kaufmann (Florestan) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Jonas Kaufmann (Florestan)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

The vocal glory of Fidelio, however, is in its ensemble pieces and these shone brightly: Georg Zeppenfeld’s gravelly Rocco and Robin Tritschler’s earnest Jaquino joined Forsythe and Davidsen for a deliriously lovely “Mir ist so wunderbar” quartet. Simon Neal provided suitable steel for the evil Don Pizarro. The Royal Opera Chorus was on fine form for the big closing numbers of each act.

Georg Zeppenfeld (Rocco), Amanda Forsythe (Marzelline) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Georg Zeppenfeld (Rocco), Amanda Forsythe (Marzelline)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Sir Antonio Pappano’s conducting brought out the historical importance of Fidelio as the opera which marks the transition from Mozartian classical to Wagnerian Romantic. Pappano conducts a great deal of the score as if it’s Wagner: not unreasonably so, because listening to him, you realise quite how many phrases Wagner lifted wholesale. The orchestra was on superb form, with urgent accenting, lightness of touch when required and particularly fine horn playing.

Simon Neal (Don Pizarro) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Simon Neal (Don Pizarro)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

You can’t read much about Fidelio without hearing it described as a problematic piece, including by Beethoven himself. The principal difficulty lies in the discontinuity between the two acts: Act 1 isn’t so far off a traditional romantic comedy, while Act 2 morphs rapidly into an oratorio-like paean to freedom and the power of marital love. Director Tobias Kratzer takes the intelligent approach of making a virtue of necessity and staging the two acts completely differently, each with its own Big Idea. Act 1 is cast as a period costume drama in post-revolutionary France: we open with a mob of grieving women – Leonore included – besieging Rocco’s prison to discover what has happened to their loved ones, most of whom, it turns out, have been guillotined. The idea is to add a level of ambiguity to the situation – Florestan is a political prisoner as much as the victim of a personal vendetta, while Pizarro is as much a slogan-spouting apparatchik as he is an evil individual. The Big Idea of Act 2 is that we are all complicit as bystanders: the chorus is on stage throughout, watching Florestan’s despair nervously but passively.

To achieve these and other ideas, Kratzer does much manipulation of the spoken dialogue, adding some new text as well as shifting lines between characters. The dramaturgy isn’t free from clunkiness, such as a pistol-less Leonore restraining the dagger-armed Pizarro with her bare hands or an unfortunate late costume change. But for the most part, it works: the drama flows better than in many productions and with orchestral and vocal performances of this quality, the Royal Opera has truly done Beethoven proud in this anniversary year, displaying Fidelio as the groundbreaking masterpiece it is.



*****